Al Pitrelli

REVIEW: T.M. Stevens – Black Night: Deep Purple Tribute According to New York (1997)

Black Night:  Deep Purple Tribute According to New York (1997 DeRock)
Produced and arranged by T.M. Stevens

This is one of the coolest and most different Deep Purple tributes you are likely to find.  It’s also by far the funkiest.

Bassist T.M. Stevens (aka Shocka Zooloo) might be best known for his work with Joe Cocker, James Brown, Billy Joel and many others…but he first came to the attention of hard rockers via Steve Vai.  He was a member of Vai’s Sex & Religion band, and immediately stood out on CD and on stage.  Although his name doesn’t appear on the front cover for Black Night: Deep Purple Tribute According to New York, it’s clearly his project.  He produced it, arranged it, and is the only musician who appears on every track.  He has a pocket full of well known friends to fill out the instruments including:  Will Calhoun (Living Color, drums), Cory Glover (Living Color, vocals), Joe Lynn Turner (Deep Purple/Rainbow, vocals), Richie Kotzen (guitar, vocals), Al Pitrelli (Savatage, guitars), Vinnie Moore (UFO, guitars), Stevie Salas (guitars), Bernie Worrell (Parliament/Funkadelic, keys), Cindy Blackman (Lenny Kravitz, drums), and Tony Harnell (TNT, vocals).  What a team!

Black Night is not for everyone.  Each and every song is drastically changed.  “Black Night” itself is slowed down and turned into a metallic bluesy grind.  Dual lead guitars by Pitrelli and Moore ensure its metal credentials, and Joe Lynn Turner comes down with his raspy soul.  Another raspy soul singer, Richie Kotzen, handles “Strange Kind of Woman” on guitar and vocals.  This one turns the funk right up!  The rhythm section of Calhoun and Stevens generates a punchy funk that can’t be stopped.  A standout.  Living Color’s Cory Glover takes over on the even funkier “Fireball”.  The creative arrangement deconstructs the song.  “Fireball” was one of the few Purple songs to feature a bass solo, so Stevens takes the opportunity to slap some bass.  A Purple tribute without “Smoke on the Water” wouldn’t be a real Deep Purple tribute.  It’s a hard track to funk up, so it’s more of a steamroller with funky verses.  Kotzen turns in a hell of a soulful vocal, proving how versatile any music can be.  An original and refreshing slant on a tired classic.

The most interesting arrangement is by far “Child in Time”.  The epic soft/loud dynamic of Purple’s beloved classic has been replaced by reggae, and why not?  Bernie Worrell does his best with Jon Lord’s original outline to create his own organ parts.  T.M. and Tony Harnell share lead vocals: Tony singing the clean and high parts (with absolutely no difficulty!), while T.M. does his Rasta take on the rest.  Sacrilege?  Keep an open mind.

Keeping an open mind is the key for this entire album.  If you cannot do that, you will probably hate Deep Purple According to New York.  That title says it all.  This is Purple according to Stevens and friends, and they do their own thing.  The rest of the material — “Woman From Tokyo”, “Stormbringer”, “Speed King”, “Burn”, and “Space Truckin'” — are as different as the first five tunes.  “Woman From Tokyo” is funky soul vocal nirvana, featuring four lead singers (Kotzen, Stevens, Harnell and Turner)!

In case you’re wondering what the closing track “Deep Purple NY” is, it’s just a funky shout-out to all the players on the CD.  “New York is in the house, New Jersey, Bernie Worrell!”  That kind of thing.

I’ve heard a number of Deep Purple tribute albums over the years.  Yngwie did four Purple songs on his mediocre Inspiration album.  Thin Lizzy did a Purple tribute under the name Funky Junction.  There was the star-studded Re-Machined CD.  There was even a 1994 tribute album called Smoke on the Water that featured three of the same guys on this album!  (Joe Lynn Turner, Tony Harnell, Richie Kotzen, as well as another ex-Purple member, Glenn Hughes).  None of those albums, even with all that star power, are nearly as interesting as Black Night.  I chose that word “interesting” on purpose.  It’s a very neutral word.  Your reaction to this album could be wildly positive, violently negative, or simply passively unmoved.  The listening experience will be anything but dull.  Whether you like it or not, if you pick up this CD you’re going to hear some of the greatest rock and funk players on the planet, so get your dancing shoes on.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Savatage – Poets and Madman (Limited edition)

A Savatage reunion gig has been announced for Wacken 2015!

SAVATAGE – Poets and Madman (2001 Steamhammer limited edition)

It is hard to believe that well over a decade have gone by since this, the final Sava-disc. Whether we’ll ever see another is unlikely, but this is a heck of a great album to go out on. Since the death of Criss Oliva, Savatage had become a much more operatic beast, culminating in the formation of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Here, there are many changes afoot. Guitarist Al Pitrelli departed for Megadeth, although some of his work is herein. Co-lead vocalist Zach Stevens is also gone, having formed the excellent Circle II Circle. This leaves The Mountain King himself, Jon Oliva, to handle all lead vocals for the first time since 1991’s Streets: A Rock Opera. (A new co-lead vocalist named Damond Jineva was hired for the tour.)

IMG_20140723_174816This is another dramatic rock opera, and as soon as the needle hits wax (or in this case, the laser hits 1’s and 0’s) you hear Oliva’s piano flourishes dominate the opening song, “Stay With Me Awhile”. Much like “Streets”, this song is simply an intro to the story which is about to unfold. This time, Oliva and producer Paul O’Neill weave a tale about an abandoned insane asylum and the ghosts within its walls. On a whole it is a much less satisfying concept than some previous Sava-operas, but it backs up the music just fine. And to be honest, that’s why we’re here — the music.

From heavy rockers like “There In The Silence” (backed by a fat synth riff) to slow dramatic ballads like “Back To A Reason”, this is a well-rounded Sava-disc. It is comparable to previous in quality and direction to rock operas such as The Wake of Magellan or Dead Winter Dead, just without Zach.

As with the aforementioned rock operas, there is always a centerpiece on the album. There had to be a counterpoint-vocal-laden masterwork to make your jaw drop in awe and hit that “reverse” button to hear it all again. This time it is a 10 minute epic called “Morphine Child”. With Zach gone, Oliva sings with multiple backing vocalists but the song is no weaker for it.  I’ll confess that even though I usually listen to albums from front to back, I usually play “Morphine Child” three times in a row.  It’s that incredible.

Other standouts include the single “Commissar” which is loaded with guitar flash, keyboards and riffage.  It also features Trans-Siberian-style backing vocals.  “I Seek Power” sounds like classic Savatage circa Gutter Ballet.  “Awaken” is another number that brings to mind that mid-period Savatage sound.  If some fans thought they had strayed way too far into rock opera, then songs like “Awaken” will appeal to their tastes.  I still like hearing Jon screaming a chorus.

I was underwhelmed a bit by the acoustic “Rumor”, but the song does take off fully electric after a few minutes.   Then there’s “Surrender” which feels like an outtake from Streets, but I didn’t find it as memorable.  So there are a couple duds, who cares?

This deluxe version comes with a sticker, a nice box, a bonus music video (1994’s “Handful of Rain” for some reason) and a bonus track (a live version of “Jesus Saves” with Zach singing…for some reason). There was also a poster, and little surprise that relates to the story that fell out of the booklet, but I won’t spoil it. Just a little extra to make the whole thing seem more real.

Poets and Madmen is an excellent album, and it fares well against the other rock operas that Savatage has done. Streets will always be the pinnacle, but Poets and Madmen can hold its own against The Wake of Magellan, and it easily out-does Dead Winter Dead.

4.5/5 stars

Also available was a CD single for “Commissar”.  The single contained two album tracks, as well as an exclusive instrumental called “Voyage”.  This acoustic piece was written and recorded by Al Pitrelli before his departure and it has not been reissued anywhere else.